The personal statement has long been one of the most dreaded aspects of the residency application, which is why 2021-2022 ophthalmology residents may be breathing a sigh of relief at the new and improved version of the application process.
With the goal of promoting diversity, enhancing inclusivity, and ensuring a more equitable application process, the Association of University Professors of Ophthalmology (AUPO), guided by the Match Oversight Committee, has altered the personal statement portion. The daunting 1,000-word essay has been replaced with a 500-word autobiographical sketch and two short 250-word essays. These brief essays will be in response to your choice of two from a short list of standardized questions generated by AUPO.
Keep in mind, for those applying through NRMP-ERAS to traditional and joint programs with an independent intern year, the 1,000-word personal essay may still be required. This article will guide you through presenting a powerful personal account for both.
In either instance, it is your chance to convince the committee that you are the right person for their program. By focusing on sincerity, substance, structure, and style, you can do just that.
To ensure success, follow these article guidelines and...
Purpose of an autobiographical statement
Your test scores reflect what you have learned. Your CV summarizes what you have done, but it is your autobiographical sketch and short essay answers that reveal who you are and why you have pursued your accomplishments and why you feel ophthalmology is the right field and ‘fit’ for you. These offer insight into the life events, personal relationships, core values/beliefs, and clinical experiences that led to your choosing a career in medicine—and in ophthalmology, in particular.
Think of your autobiographical sketch as an opportunity to tell the story of your personal and professional development and as a vehicle to prove that you are uniquely qualified for the program, passionate about the field, and prepared to make a valuable contribution.
In 500 words, an autobiographical sketch can:
- Highlight the unique qualities, special skills, and life experiences that make you the best candidate.
- Reveal what inspired you to choose a career in medicine.
- Demonstrate an adequate understanding of ophthalmology.
- Explain your motivation for choosing ophthalmology.
- Contextualize the information found in your CV.
- Reiterate any relevant clinical experience.
- Define your future aspirations and career goals.
Begin with brainstorming
Now that you know what your statement/sketch should include, it is time to brainstorm and gather the information you’ll need to begin crafting an outstanding essay. The drafting process is not the stage to analyze, judge, or edit—there will be plenty of time for that later. Adopt the attitude that there is no bad idea.
Grab a few sheets of paper or open a document, and allow yourself to simply write down what comes to mind when you think about your path thus far. Don’t worry about form or grammatical accuracy. As implied in the name, brainstorming is about letting your thoughts rain down.
Probing prompts for your autobiographical sketch
To get the creative juices flowing, ask yourself the following questions and jot down anything—and everything—that comes to mind. This process and your subsequent notes will also prove useful in choosing and answering the two required essay questions.
- What life experiences have most shaped me as a person?
- Who is my biggest influence/role model?
- When and why did I first know I wanted to enter the medical field?
- How have my travels influenced my medical aspirations?
- What makes me unique in comparison to my classmates?
- What accomplishment(s) am I most proud of?
- Do I have hobbies/interests that will help me become a better doctor?
- What is my greatest strength?
- What is my greatest weakness?
- What is my personal philosophy?
- How would my friends and peers describe me?
- What would be the biggest compliment a patient could give me as a physician?
- Why am I choosing ophthalmology?
- What qualities make a good ophthalmologist?
- How do I embody these qualities?
- What are my ultimate goals/aspirations?
- Is there something (a gap/discrepancy in my education) I would like to explain? *Note, this is something that will often be asked on interviews
Now, you have several pages of ideas and information ready to be revisited, rated, and reduced. Based on your brainstorming, pick the most cogent, critical, and compelling information to prove why you will make an outstanding resident and ophthalmologist.
Decide on a theme and write a one-sentence thesis that clearly answers what makes you an ideal candidate. Find pertinent elements of your story that align with that theme and support your thesis.
Now, apply the four essential elements below to catapult your personal autobiographical sketch to the top: sincerity, substance, structure, and style.
Authenticity is all-important. Inevitably, your story will have both successes and failures. The exciting aspect of the human experience is how individuals deal with disappointments, settle conflicts, and overcome obstacles. Do not be afraid to be vulnerable and honest about setbacks.
On the other hand, do not shy away from being proud of your accomplishments and expressing genuine enthusiasm for people, places, hobbies, and the field of medicine. Programs do not expect perfection; they do expect passion and perseverance.
With honesty, tell your story and share what makes you the person you are and what motivates you to grow into the person you will become.
Make certain to state clearly and confidently why you have chosen the field of medicine and the specialty of ophthalmology. Succinctly summarize any relevant personal and clinical experience and bolster any items on your CV that need clarification and further explanation. Detail the qualities that make you the best candidate for the residency and what you plan to bring to the program. This is the meat of the essay.
Your autobiographical sketch will consist of three sections. The first states why you are a first-class candidate. The second offers evidence based on your experiences and education. The final paragraph outlines what you see for your future as a resident and physician.
Use this simple structure for success:
- Introductory paragraph (100 words):
- Start with an attention-catching sentence that captures the reader.
- Introduce the thesis or overriding theme that answers why you will make an outstanding resident and physician.
- Body (300 words):
- Paragraph one: Unique story/personal experience/relevant exposure
- Paragraph two: Highlights of educational/clinical career or impetus for entering the field of ophthalmology.
- Link the personal and professional together to explain how your story relates to your current career goals.
- Closing paragraph (100 words):
- Clearly state your goals/ambitions and reiterate, based on the information in the above paragraphs, your confidence in completion.
Tailoring a traditional statement
If you are applying through NRMP-ERAS to programs that require a traditional personal statement, you have an additional 500 words to work with. This extra content should be added to the body of the essay to bolster the personal story and educational/clinical experience sections.
Also consider incorporating your short essay answers from the SF Match application and weaving them into your narrative.
As with any essay, your personal statement must adhere to the rules of good writing. In a nutshell, this means it must:
- Be organized and easy to read with no abrupt transitions or confusing concepts.
- Contain paragraphs that flow effortlessly into one another with the use of logical, transitional sentences.
- Use a voice that is consistent and dynamic.
- Employ specific language.
- Be grammatically correct with proper tense usage, punctuation, and spelling.
- Avoid cliches.
Time to type
There are two main methods most writers use: outline and free form. One is a building process, while the other depends on honing and removing unnecessary information.
An outline entails laying out the essay before you begin writing it. It is useful to streamline the process and make sure that the writer does not wander far from the theme. To outline your essay, place your thesis statement at the top of the page, and then refer to the section on the structure to organize your personal statement.
Begin with basic sentences and build, bit by bit, adding more detail until the piece is complete.
With free form writing, you put as much on the page as possible that adheres to the theme. Then, pare down to the most fundamental facts and intriguing information. Finally, organize the remainder to make it easily readable.
Effectively answering essay questions
The short essay answers were incorporated to level the playing field by enhancing the ability of reviewers to directly compare responses among applicants. Therefore, it is extremely important to offer authentic answers that will truly set you apart, instead of stock statements.
Think of your short essay answers as a way to affirm your autobiographical statement while offering further facts about you as a person and expanding on your experience. While the voice, tone, and style should be the same as your sketch, choose questions that allow you to reveal additional information that was not made available in the autobiographical statement.
When answering, remember that sometimes simplicity and succinctness are better than superfluous, overdone, and repetitive essays; you do not want to lose your reader’s attention in an attempt to fill a word count.
Each short essay should:
- Answer the question. Make certain you stay focused and on topic.
- Be structured with an opening thesis, supporting documentation, and conclusion.
- Be authentic and avoid “safe” generic answers.
- Supplement your CV and autobiographical statement with new information.
- Exhibit personal growth when possible.
Write once, edit twice . . . or thrice
You have written the first drafts of your sketch and essay answers; now the real work begins with the editing process. This is where you fine-tune to a form where every word counts. Speaking of words, check with your individual program/application to determine the maximum word count, though 1,000 is a typical number.
Read your sketch and essay answers aloud. This will alert you to typos, problems with pacing, missing words, awkward transitions, tone, and so on. When read aloud, your essay should sound like you—not just some generic voice.
Seek a second opinion from the experts
Choose three people to read your completed sketch/essays: one with knowledge of your chosen specialty, ideally one who knows you and your voice well, and one who is a writing expert.
Upon completion, have each of them answer the following:
- Do you feel you know who I am and what values I hold?
- Do you know why I personally have chosen ophthalmology?
- Do you understand what I can bring to the program and the field?
- Is it clear what qualities and experience I possess that will make me an asset to the program?
During the 2021-2022 process, applicants may have the ability to customize their autobiographical sketches as well choose different personal essay questions upon applying to different programs. They may also be able to express their interest and qualifications for certain ophthalmology specialties to targeted programs.
Finally, use our downloadable checklist to make sure you have covered all the bases and ticked all the boxes.
Even the strongest personal statement will not compensate for low grades, below average USMLE scores, a sparse CV, or lackluster recommendation letters. However, a powerful personal statement can be the determining factor between two comparable candidates. It not only increases your chances of getting an interview, it gives the institution a preview of precisely who you are and what you have to offer in an ophthalmology residency.
On a more personal level, your personal statement provides an opportunity to reflect on where you’ve been, where you’re going, and why ophthalmology is the right field for you. After the arduous application process, penning a personal statement can help strengthen your commitment and reignite your passion to succeed in your ophthalmology residency.